Ghosts and Spirits Roam the British Summer Stage

LONDON: Nearly every theater is a haunted house. Theaters are spooky places—locales for apparitions and delusions. Plunged into darkness, audiences find themselves subjected to strange sights and odd sounds. Spectators see people who aren't really there, perceive actions that aren't really happening. One of the theater's goals, according to its earliest theorists, is to incite fear.

But rarely is that emotion provoked by a chainsaw-wielding maniac who chases you down a murky hallway—the climax of It Felt Like a Kiss, a promenade play by the British company Punchdrunk, and easily the most terrifying show I witnessed during a week of theatergoing in England. Yet many of the other dramas I saw—though mercifully free of psychopaths and power tools—echoed Punchdrunk's penchant for using the theater as a place to evoke ghosts, ghouls, and very dangerous illusions.

Staged in a disused office building near the Manchester docks as part of the Manchester International Festival, It Felt Like a Kiss tells "the story of how America set out to remake the world" in the 1950s and '60s. Apparently, America did this in nice ways, like exporting pop music, and in nasty ones, like sponsoring coups. As in previous Punchdrunk shows, the audience navigates a series of meticulously decorated rooms—a suburban bungalow, a chamber for electroshock therapy, a high school gym. While music composed by Damon Albarn and performed by the Kronos Quartet plays, viewers are encouraged to lift blankets, open drawers, and otherwise attempt to uncover the world of the play. (Entering that gym becomes more daunting when one has just perused a film script entitled Teenage Bloodbath.)

Handsome fardel bearer: Law in Hamlet
Johan Persson
Handsome fardel bearer: Law in Hamlet
Mad forest: Mark Rylance (with hatchet), Mackenzie Crook (left),  and the cast of "Jerusalem"
Simon Annand
Mad forest: Mark Rylance (with hatchet), Mackenzie Crook (left), and the cast of "Jerusalem"

An hour or so in, seats beckon and a 35-minute documentary movie plays. Set to zippy music, it juxtaposes Doris Day and Patrice Lumumba, space chimps and Lee Harvey Oswald. The film, about various American activities, proposes conspiracy theory via montage, resulting in a fairly silly thesis. Do Fidel Castro and Phil Spector really interrelate? Nevertheless, by the show's end, I found myself unhappy, unsettled, and still wishing that someone would fund a Punchdrunk sojourn in New York.

Until that spookshow finds its way to our shores, American audiences can content themselves with another imported ghost story—the Michael Grandage–directed Hamlet already scheduled to appear on Broadway in September. Judging by the legions of moonfaced teenagers who mobbed the stage door of London's Wyndham Theatre, Jude Law's appearance as the melancholy Dane seems the main draw. This Dane is less melancholy than enraged, though. Instead of seeking revenge, he might better seek a Xanax prescription. While Law ignores his advice to the players—occasionally sawing the air and often out-Heroding Herod—he's a more powerful actor than his film roles suggest and relaxes as death impends.

While the sweet prince finds himself troubled by his father's ghost, it's the living who haunt the sour heroine of J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways at the National Theatre. Rupert Goold, one of London's celebrated youngish auteurs, directs this 1937 play about a young woman granted an unhappy vision of the future. In 1919, at her 21st birthday party, Kay (Hattie Morahan) dozes and dreams of her family 19 years hence—a time when bloom and ambition have succumbed to wrinkles and mediocrity. (Peculiarly, in Goold's world, fortysomethings seem to suffer from arthritis and palsy.) She wakes horrorstruck at the unhappy future. Alas, Goold takes great and largely unsuccessful pains to elevate Priestley's amiably bourgeois material and complicate his simple theories of time and its ravages, tarting up the script with ominous sound cues and balletic interludes.

Goold might have let Time run its course, but Nicholas Hytner's Phèdre, also at the National, could benefit from a more interventionist approach. Hytner seems to have handed around Ted Hughes's version of Racine's tragedy, plunked his actors on a sun-parched landscape, then ambled off elsewhere. This production lacks a strong directorial approach, but it does not lack the extraordinary Helen Mirren in the title role. A vengeful Venus has possessed Phèdre and filled her with passionate desire for her stepson, Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper). An astonishing actress, Mirren can transform herself from ecstatic to despondent, from ingénue to crone, from tyrant to beggar, all in the space of a line.

Phèdre moans that "the curse of Venus is fatal"—and, indeed, the play ends with half of its characters deceased—but All's Well That Ends Well and A Doll's House reveal that one doesn't require the Greek gods to develop perilous illusions about the opposite sex. In Marianne Elliott's production of Shakespeare's romance at the National, Bertram (George Rainsford) appears to be a loutish adolescent, but Helena (Michelle Terry) perceives him as a worthy husband, suffering and struggling and more or less prostituting herself in order to win his unworthy hand. Elliott can't altogether assuage the work's acrid sexual politics, but she resets it in a storybook world (gorgeously realized by Rae Smith), in which the play's ridiculous riddles and quests seem nearly sensible. Nora, too, harbors troubling beliefs about her beau. Zinnie Harris has adapted Ibsen's play for the Donmar Warehouse, resetting it in Edwardian England. The update is not altogether necessary, but under Kfir Yefet's direction, the final scenes resonate with relevance and emotional terror. Nora (Gillian Anderson, in a hectic if effective performance) expects that her husband (Toby Stephens) will love and trust her in spite of an earlier indiscretion. Her abrupt disillusionment initiates that famous slammed door.

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